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Back for Season 2, 'Dark Winds' is a cop drama steeped in Navajo culture

Zahn McClarnon plays Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Jessica Matten is Sgt. Bernadette Manuelito in Season 2 of <em>Dark Winds.</em>
Michael Moriatis
Zahn McClarnon plays Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Jessica Matten is Sgt. Bernadette Manuelito in Season 2 of Dark Winds.

In 1970, a journalist named Tony Hillerman launched a series of crime novels featuring two Navajo cops who work for the tribal police on a reservation in New Mexico. The books sold well, earned great reviews, won prizes and led to Hillerman being honored in 1991 by the Navajo tribal council.

But our cultural standards have changed profoundly, and one wonders whether these mysteries would even be published now, let alone receive so much acclaim. After all, Hillerman was a white outsider whose books today would likely face charges of cultural appropriation.

Yet as it stands, the Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee novels, as they're known, are very enjoyable books, as well as valuable intellectual property. So you get why they're being turned into the TV series Dark Winds, whose second season can be seen on AMC and AMC+.

Produced by Robert Redford and George R.R. Martin among others, Dark Winds retools and modernizes Hillerman's conception. Set amidst the fiercely beautiful New Mexico landscape of the early 1970s, this entertaining series stars, is written by, and is largely directed by Native Americans. They have enlarged the women's roles and treat Navajo culture not as sociology but as lived experience.

The terrific Zahn McClarnon stars as the honorably intense Lt. Joe Leaphorn, who — along with his nurse wife, Emma, played by Deanna Allison — is still reeling from the death of their son in an explosion. As coiled as a rattler, albeit a righteous one, Joe spends most of his time with two younger investigators. There's officer Bernadette Manuelito, known as Bern (Jessica Matten), who fears her future is limited in the hardscrabble Navajo world. And there's Jim Chee (Kiowa Gordon), who worked for the FBI in Season 1 but, feeling used by them, has become a private eye.

The new season begins with a fatal bombing outside a medical center that injures Emma. Joe suspects the bomber might be the guy who killed his son, and with Bern at his side, begins a relentless pursuit of the killer. Meanwhile Jim is being hired by a slippery blonde, played by Jeri Ryan, to find a box of personal effects that was stolen from her home.

Naturally, these investigations overlap, and soon the three are dealing with a uranium tycoon, assorted dead bodies, mountainside shootouts and life and death treks through the desert, not to mention a religious cult known, ominously enough, as People of Darkness.

In adapting Hillerman's work, the show's creators keep the bones of his '70s material, but they also want to go beyond doing just another police drama and capture truths about Navajo life. These aims don't fully mesh. A tad old-fashioned, the series lacks the contemporary snap of Reservation Dogs, a better and more freewheeling show about Native Americans that owes nothing to 50-year-old mystery novels. In that series, whose third season begins next week, McClarnon shines as an amiably superstitious cop who's vastly more relaxed — and arguably more modern — than staid Joe Leaphorn.

Like nearly all crime shows, Dark Winds has a plot that bends toward the predictably formulaic — if you can't guess the villain, you haven't been paying attention. The show's true interest lies in its characters and their world — a Navajo society that is as financially strapped as it is spiritually rich, that confronts overt racism and government paternalism, that has its women forcibly sterilized and its sons drafted for Vietnam, and that leaves its members stuck between a fractured Navajo culture and the white culture that did the fracturing.

Just as Bern must decide whether to abandon the reservation she loves to seek a bigger future in the white world, Jim — who sports a comically huge-collared '70s shirt — seeks a way of using his investigative skills without being sucked into being a fed or tribal cop. The show's best scenes are the most personal ones — like Joe and Bern discussing whether she'd be better off working for the Border Patrol or Joe dealing with his dad, a former tribal cop who's furious that his son got a college education and then didn't escape, but wound up doing the same job he did.

Dark Winds is a solidly enjoyable crime drama, but in the end, it isn't really about our heroes uncovering the killer's identity. It's about the ways in which they're searching for their own.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.